Changing the Field

Written by Mike Miller.

Video story by Tyler Gibb, Diana Ochulo and Austin Deming. Podcast by Diana Ochulo and Austin Deming.

Keenan Ellis arrived on the BYU football team as a wide receiver in 2017 before switching to cornerback. While his transition to college football was made more difficult by a position change, that time would define Ellis’ BYU career, but not for a reason he ever could have imagined.

“I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t where I wanted to be,” Ellis said of his freshman year. “I remember going to bed thinking, ‘I can’t wait until I’m out on the field and performing my best.’ And when it finally came true I was like, ‘Wow, I really saw this happen. All the grind, all the hours; I am really proud of myself and where I am right now.’”

Ellis, who was one of BYU’s starting cornerbacks entering the 2021 season, had ambitious plans for that year. He wanted to improve his mechanics and playmaking instincts with the goal of eventually reaching the NFL. However, his dreams carried beyond a desire for personal accomplishments.

“My goal was always to support my family,” Ellis explained. “The primary drive behind my love for football was because of the opportunities it gave me and what I could do for my family.”

With the support of his freshman self and the pride of his family behind him, Ellis joined his teammates at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas for the start of the 2021 season in BYU’s opener against Arizona. But just five minutes into the game, Ellis found himself collapsed on the turf, surrounded by trainers, paramedics and the prayers of his teammates.

That’s what he has been told, at least.

“The only thing I remember from that play was right before the snap; I remember looking at my safety, Chaz Ah You,” Ellis recalled. “He gave me a (play) call and I got the call. After that, I just remember waking up in the hotel, throwing up.”

A routine tackle gave Ellis a concussion so intense that he only remembers about five percent of the two months following his collapse.

Even worse, the injury ended his career.

Doctors feared the symptoms of memory loss, anger and confusion Ellis experienced from his concussion would become permanent if he sustained another heavy hit. Therefore, four months after that September night in Las Vegas and four years after dreaming of the future in his freshman dorm, Ellis was stripped of everything he worked so hard for.

“They told me that, (and) it literally felt like the worst gut punch ever,” Ellis said. “I tried to hold it back, but I had tears just piling up. I felt my life crumble.”

And the family he was hoping to support through his football career? “I didn’t even tell my mom for about two to three weeks because once I told her, that’s when it felt real.”

Even if Ellis’ football dreams drove out of Allegiant Stadium in an ambulance, his spirit, support and drive to succeed did not.

“Hearing that devastating of news, he let it hurt a little bit,” said Ah You, Ellis’ teammate and roommate. “He went through a couple of months where he was a little down, but I think he bounced back the fastest I’ve ever seen someone bounce back from that.”

“I said, ‘OK, well, football’s done,’” Ellis said. “‘What can I do next to support my family?’ My undergrad was sociology, so I was always familiar with criminology. A lot of my family members are in and out of the system. So I figured I’m going to law school, and I can either represent my family or know somebody to represent my family. That’s what drove me, and I stuck on that energy and kept going.”

Ellis graduated from BYU with a bachelor’s degree in 2022 and is currently studying for the LSAT in preparation for law school and his next season in life.

“He would come (home) every day and watch law school videos on the big screen like it was (game) film,” Ah You explained. “I don’t know how he sat through those boring videos, but he was bought in. And that’s Keenan in a nutshell. It doesn’t matter how hard or boring it is, if he has to do something to be successful, he’s going to do it.”

“That’s why I’m really grateful for my college football experience,” Ellis added. “Because as a freshman, I wasn’t a starter and they switched me to corner. I put in a lot of hours. It was hard. I eventually got to the point where I wanted to be (with football) and I saw the same thing with the LSAT. Every time I did bad, I saw it as an opportunity to get better. Failure is only possible when you put a time limit on it.”

Freshman Ellis may not recognize himself watching law school videos instead of football film, but Ellis believes that version of himself would be pleased with the growth he experienced.

“That dude would be like, ‘You’re not Keenan?’ I made a big change from my freshman self, but I think he’d be proud of me,” Ellis said. “That kid wanted to work hard, get to a good spot and make sure nothing distracts him or tears him down from his goals.”

Ellis laughs when thinking about meeting his younger counterpart. Despite their differences and a nightmare-turned-reality that one would have feared and the other lived, Ellis says the two are still the same person.

“If freshman Keenan looked at me now, I think he’d actually be quite proud of how far I’ve come and the fact that I’m not stopping,” Ellis said. “I have no regrets. Looking back, I’m content.”

Photo by Tyler Gibb/The Daily Universe
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